I have always thought of myself as a good person, but I recently began to suspect that I have been kidding myself. What’s more, I began to believe that my failure to be a good person is inseparable from me being a writer—an activity that has taken on the character of something diabolical.
I should clarify that I am in the habit of second-guessing myself, of being self-critical. Generally speaking, scepticism rather than faith, self-doubt rather than self-confidence, have served me well. I think of these characteristics—undoubtedly with an obnoxious measure of self-regard—as the foundation for learning, thinking, self-reinvention, and even healthy relationships.
I can readily change my opinion to a better one. In relationships, I can quickly accept during an argument—even one that begins with a conviction that I have been wounded—that I might be to blame. It’s not that I am a masochist. Nor am I lacking in pride. I don’t experience ‘losing face’, perhaps because a face is only ever a mask. I have no idea who I really am. Our murky underground histories and emotions, working their way through us in ways we cannot hope to understand, always cloud the well of clarity. I cannot speak with any authority. I am certain of almost nothing, including what I have written here. Reading back over this paragraph, it strikes me as outrageously overstated. I am sure, for instance, that my husband would challenge my claim to being so supremely accommodating during arguments.
Perhaps the only truth is that I have always congratulated myself on this characteristic of what I will generously call open-mindedness—even though, as I am describing it thus, I am thinking of the magic tricks of escape artists. But this characteristic of mine is one of the reasons, if I am to be perfectly honest, that I have always hubristically thought myself good.
• • •
I associate this open-mindedness with my longstanding habits of reading, formed while I was a child and not expected to have any idea of myself. Back then I tried on different characters: girls and boys, dogs and rats, adventurers and wives, miners and aristocrats. I explored different ideologies: survival of the fittest, unionism, sexism, feminism. I endured different scenarios: bourgeois drawing rooms, forests, boarding schools, nuclear scenes of apocalypse. Even as an adult, I believe that you should not open a book unless you also open yourself to it. Having said that, there are books I no longer open.
I have also always believed that open-mindedness is central to my writing.
Writing this, I remembered Jorge Luis Borges’ ‘Everything and Nothing’, in which he characterises Shakespeare like this: ‘There was nobody in him; behind his face … and his words, which were copious, fantastic, and frantic, there was nothing but a slight chill, a dream not dreamt by anyone.’
Unable to cope with this condition, Shakespeare ultimately retires from his profession.
• • •
The self-doubt I have been experiencing lately is also professional in nature. It is about what I pompously call my vocation as a creative writer. However, it is bound up less with the philosophical or existential than with the ethical—with the question of being good.
We are all creatures of our times. In this age of trigger warnings, rules against cultural appropriation, publishing contracts with morality clauses, sensitivity readers, writers festivals promising safe spaces and hugs, the scandals dogging Junot Díaz, how could my professional crisis as a writer be anything other than a moral one?
I know writers who have reacted with hostility to the idea that they should be called upon to be morally accountable human beings. But as Chinua Achebe once bluntly said, ‘writers are not only writers, they are also citizens. They are [also] generally adults.’ It cannot be bad to be reminded, as writers, that our authority to say and do as we like is neither childlike nor divine. Especially given that books have been traditionally and uncritically bestowed with an intrinsic moral stature.
In any case, as I have said, I like to second-guess myself.
I can remember when my self-doubt as a writer began to crystallise. I was watching the BBC adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, having come to it late on Netflix. I was watching it alone, admiring the complexities and subtleties—so unusual for television—in the portrayal of Thomas Cromwell, adviser to Henry VIII. While we see the action from Cromwell’s side and are encouraged to regard him with sympathy, it becomes apparent that, while he thinks of himself as good—and we are compelled to agree—others see him as ruthless, manipulative, cunning. A crack—though it is not made explicit and not really leveraged—quietly appears in his conception of himself and in our conception of him.
I paused the show and typed into the Notes app on my iPhone: ‘Cromwell. Does not know himself. Thinks himself innocent when others see him as selfish, cruel, scheming.’ The words are still there. I was tying a proverbial piece of string on a finger. There was something here worth remembering.
I read Mantel’s book to get another, possibly contradictory, take on Cromwell’s portrayal, but that original sense of a character’s delusion, corruption and disintegration remained. As did the haunting possibility that it meant something for me personally. Literature reveals things to us about ourselves. Scholars may look down on the ‘naive’ habits of readers who identify with literary characters, but books provide exceptional technologies for self-reflection and evaluation. Better than any mirror.
• • •
I grew up in Lalor, a working-class suburb of Melbourne, the child of Finnish migrants. We had three books in our house, all in Finnish and all hardbacks: my mother’s aapinen or school primer; a vividly green picture book called Mitä kello on? or What time is it?; and a short illustrated novel about a cat called Pekka Töpöhäntä. I read them all countless times. When I learned English at primary school, and found myself with access to the wonders of a school library, my childhood world, which had been so contained, so claustrophobic, expanded exponentially. So did my capacity for feeling and thinking—and, especially, feeling and thinking about myself, about what it meant to be me as opposed to someone else, if it meant anything at all.
That all sounds narcissistic, but it also sounds Pollyannaish as a portrait of my learning journey through literature. Because what I remember most about my experience of books, from my childhood through to my adulthood, is how it was punctuated by shocks, pain, trauma and awakenings; by occasions that prompted me to contemplate suffering, solitude, death or apocalypse; by experiences of difference or alterity that pushed me to defend or extend myself; by reading events that broke me apart and remade me anew.
Perhaps such hyperbolic language also misrepresents what happens when we read. Such experiences, after all, can happen quietly, slowly, insidiously, like they did with my encounter with Cromwell.
My crisis of self-doubt as a writer, however, wasn’t triggered solely by the genius of Hilary Mantel.
• • •
In 2017 I was a guest at the 27th Medellín International Poetry Festival in Colombia. Medellín is a city of 2.5 million people, situated in a deep and beautiful valley in the Andes, with barrios or poor neighbourhoods crawling up the mountainsides from the city centre as if poverty might defy gravity. The festival, which lasts a week, is massive. There are events held everywhere in the city and surrounds, including in the FARC rebel camps that still exist in the mountains. The opening and closing nights attract audiences in the thousands, who come to hear poets and musicians from all over the world.
Not so long ago, Medellín had the reputation of being the most dangerous city in the world. Conflicts between drug cartels, left-wing and right-wing paramilitary organisations, and a government desperate for control resulted in a period in the city’s history now known as La Violencia. There were massacres, kidnappings, murders, bombings, and mass displacements as people fled their homes, awful fear, and grief.
I spoke to a local poet whose brother was among the disappeared and whose sister had been murdered for picking up an injured dog on the street. The animal had been a fighting dog owned by a FARC leader. The FARC—or the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia—is a left-wing liberationist movement, but they were not averse to using kidnap, torture and extortion, or cooperating with drug cartels. During the poetry festival, FARC poets occasionally made surprise appearances. They had to be a surprise because the festival organisers were afraid of reprisals.
The festival organisers and the people of Medellín, though, were unafraid in another sense—unafraid to speak the unspeakable, to testify to their history, to grapple with their pain. At each event, at each reading, the organisers would begin by reciting the body count of La Violencia, acknowledging the murdered and the tortured and the missing, recognising the city’s epidemic of grief, and celebrating the people’s resilience and survival and future. The festival saw itself as part of the remaking of the city—a remaking that had to come through a recognition that there had been a breaking.
Of course, Australia could learn much from this.
At my first reading on the first night of the festival, as I sat on the spotlit stage listening to the event facilitator run through the horrors of La Violencia, I began to realise that I had made an appalling mistake.
I had prepared to read a sequence of six poems called ‘Narcissism’, published in my first collection and freshly translated into Spanish for the occasion. The poems dismember the body into its constituent parts—eyes, toes, fingers, hair, mouth, skin—in a game of defamiliarisation. The poem ‘Hair’ goes like this:
Hair still belongs on corpses;
We’re not surprised to see it there.
There’s something of the tendrils of the brain or the earth about it.
Women rip it off their bodies, but it keeps on growing.
Corpses, brains, bodies, the earth. Another poem in the sequence refers to amputated limbs. How could I speak these words into this time and place?
I felt suddenly sick with shame. All I had to offer the traumatised people of Medellín were words that violated simply for the sake of poetry. I felt disgusted with myself, disgusted with my work—because of the violence that I suddenly saw existed at the heart of it.
What choice did I have other than to dissimulate, to pretend it wasn’t so? I played my performance for laughs. Online you can watch a video of me reading the poem, using dramatic gestures and cheeky smiles, acting for all I was worth, trying to fool the audience into believing that I was good.
• • •
William Faulkner wrote that the writer is energised by a diabolical spirit, which excuses him [sic] of all things, not only in his art but also in his life: ‘An artist is a creature driven by demons. He doesn’t know why they choose him and he’s usually too busy to wonder why. He is completely amoral in that he will rob, borrow, beg, or steal from anybody and everybody to get the work done.’ Faulkner is contemptuous of the idea that writers might be motivated by financial gain. The prize of writing is something greater; it is a kind of power, which he figures in violently masculinist and misogynistic terms.
The writer doesn’t need economic freedom. All he needs is a pencil and some paper … Good ones don’t have time to bother with success or getting rich. Success is feminine and like a woman; if you cringe before her, she will override you. So the way to treat her is to show her the back of your hand. Then maybe she will do the crawling.
At an obvious level, Faulkner’s posturing and rhetoric make for a whole lot of offensive rubbish. Yet women writers, like their male counterparts, have also intimated at the violence that lies behind what they do with the pen and page, or keyboard and screen, and the ways in which power is implicated in creative writing.
Joan Didion, in the bold style that defines her work, describes writing as inherently aggressive: ‘you’re trying to make somebody see something the way you see it, trying to impose your idea, your picture. It’s hostile to try to wrench around someone else’s mind that way.’
Ali Smith baldly asks her readers: ‘Do you come to art to be comforted, or do you come to art to be re-skinned?’
• • •
The grotesque metaphor resonates with the story I like to tell of how I became a writer.
When I was a child, I feared that I was the Antichrist. I used to check for the mark of the devil on my scalp. I would stand up close to the bathroom mirror, with a smaller mirror in my hand so that I could inspect the back of my head. I was searching my scalp for a tattoo of the number of the beast: 666.
To explain, I watched horror films from an early age. My family got a VHS player when I was in primary school. Visits to the video rental store usually saw my father—for reasons worth questioning, though not right here and now—choose video cassettes featuring abject images behind the sticky plastic of their protective covers. These movies included what are classics of the horror genre: The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, The Exorcist, A Nightmare on Elm Street. We would have watched every available horror movie in the store. The film that was responsible for my childhood anxiety about being the Antichrist was The Omen. This film was about an adopted boy, called Damien, who comes to a reluctant awareness that he was spawned by the devil and who can confirm this by identifying the mark of the devil beneath his hair.
I should probably also explain that I had been brought up in the Lutheran religion, so the idea of a devil’s child struck me as perfectly feasible. I would go so far as to say that the supernatural realms of horror films and Christianity formed a single spectrum for me.
One might view my identification with the devil child in the Omen films as unfortunate and perhaps masochistic. But I suspect that an identification with the parade of savaged, screaming, female victims would have been infinitely worse. The way I see it, the character of the devil child unconsciously represented, for my childish self, a transgressive fantasy of power. As a child who was bullied—for speaking a foreign language, for having a weird name, for my dissociative habit of counting, for preferring my own company—the potential to wreak supernatural vengeance on my enemies would have had a definite appeal. Vicious Dobermanns, nasty ravens and spontaneous aneurysms would befall those who had done me wrong. It was also the case that there was someone devastatingly powerful looking after Damien, who stood to inherit nothing less than the Earth.
We expect young girls to be as innocuous as possible, though we encourage young boys’ fantasies of power through stories about superheroes and football stars. But I imagine that all female children—or, indeed, grown women—would uncover in themselves a diabolical desire for power, at least from time to time. It has always struck me that Sylvia Plath’s poetry expresses a demonic fantasy (and feeling) of supremacy, which is possibly what lies behind her appeal to teenage girls. When I was introduced to her poetry in my high school literature class, I was instantly mesmerised. The last lines of ‘Lady Lazarus’ are embedded in my memory:
Herr God, Herr Lucifer
Out of the ash
I rise with my red hair
And I eat men like air.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the first stories I wrote as a child were in the horror genre. I wrote them with a desire to defy what was expected of me. I know this because I remember that unique pleasure I experienced in being naughty. One story called ‘Maniac’—the heading dripping with red texta—told the story of a young girl who comes home from school one day to find her mother being carved up by a serial killer. The girl flees to the police station, and the police put the child in a hotel, conceived of as a kind of safe house. That evening, the girl looks out of her hotel room window and sees her dog being decapitated by the killer, now wielding a saw in the hotel car park.
After submitting this story to my teacher, I was called out of my class to the principal’s office. I sat before the principal’s desk and listened to the imposing Mr Orr express his astonishment at my imagination. He held my English workbook in his hands, flicking through the pages of my handwritten story. He praised the narrative’s realism and asked me if I had a particular hotel in mind when I came up with the plot. I was a small, uncannily blonde and morbidly shy Finnish-Australian girl of about ten years of age. It was possible that, during the entire interview, I said absolutely nothing—but I remember smiling.
It was only years later that I came to understand that my story, ‘Maniac’, had raised concerns about my home life and that the interview was a subtle interrogation—another reminder that one should always second-guess whatever it is one thinks one knows, particularly when the ego
At the time, though, I glowed with pride. I had been marked out as special. I had, after all, been singled out by the proverbial man in charge. He had recognised my hidden powers. I felt I had received the calling that day to be not an agent of the devil per se, but a writer.
Having reread that anecdote, it looks too neat and clever to be true. Or perhaps it is that I, as a child, seem too clever to be true. It is possible that I am projecting what I believe now onto what I thought then: that there is something inherently sadistic about the writer and the act of writing.
I do, however, have documentary evidence that this intuition was active by the time I was getting published. In 2005, after one of my early poems, ‘Storm’, was short-listed for the inaugural Australian Book Review Poetry Prize, I was interviewed on a program about that competition on ABC TV. I remember asserting—repeatedly, insistently, clumsily—that poetry is fundamentally about violence, though I was unable to articulate how or why. Neither did I articulate that as any kind of moral problem.
• • •
I have tried to think of an alternative, non-violent way of writing. One which would guarantee that literature truly offers a safe space. I picture only an instruction manual.
Charles Baxter similarly ponders what a happy literature might look like. He concludes that a literature of happiness—a state that can only be achieved by ignoring the cruelty or pain of others living alongside us in the world—would be immoral. It is a clever argument. Writers are good at clever arguments, at justifying what they do. Take Kafka:
I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound or stab us. If the book we’re reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow to the head, what are we reading for? … We need books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us.
Many books have hacked into my flesh and blood like this, including his. When I read The Metamorphosis, when I felt Gregor’s alienation and self-disgust, it was as if I had been forced to contemplate the abominable truth of my own loneliness and abjection.
Books are often praised as empathy-enhancers. But Colum McCann has this to say about empathy: ‘Don’t let them fool you. Empathy is violent. Empathy is tough. Empathy can rip you open. Once you go there, you can be changed.’
If I am honest, I haven’t always appreciated the challenge to my empathy, the attack on my equanimity, the prompt to expand the known perimeters of myself. After reading Toni Morrison’s Beloved, I was devastated for weeks, haunted by the brutality of human history and by what we might do to avoid confronting that source of pain. After reading Elizabeth Costello, I experienced something akin to rage at the power that J.M. Coetzee, as an author, had over me. Those feelings of anger and awe led me to pitch an idea for an essay about Coetzee’s work to an Australian journal. My pitch was made up of a couple of introductory paragraphs, which described the effect the novel had on me and which concluded with the lines: ‘Fuck you, Coetzee. This is my tribute and my revenge.’
The editor was keen to receive the finished essay, but I, not surprisingly, started second-guessing it. Literary criticism isn’t written like that. In any case, Coetzee has the reputation of a saint, having been anointed with the Nobel Prize for Literature, which is akin to the Nobel Prize for Virtue.
The truth, though, is that his work is violating. That is how it achieves its ethical mission. Coetzee takes us out of ourselves, cruelly and unapologetically. He makes us feel bewilderingly and wretchedly alive—and, in this way, acutely aware of our inescapable and shared humanity.
This business of writing: both virtue and vice.
• • •
As an undergraduate student, I was taught the art of fiction writing by Gerald Murnane. His criterion for assessing the worth of a story, he told us one day in class, was its capacity to mark him in a lasting way. He defined that impact in terms of a remembered image. Over time he used to cull books from his shelves that had failed to impress themselves upon him in this enigmatic way.
Murnane’s anecdote has passed its own test, having found an enduring place in my memory. After 25 years, I still envision him inspecting an old paperback, his memory going over the book like a Geiger counter assessing a piece of potentially radioactive earth.
I was scheduled to interview Murnane at a Melbourne event in early 2019. It was to be his last-ever public engagement. It had been more than two decades since I had last seen him. A couple of months beforehand, he sent me a text message in which he reminded me that he was a gentle person and in which he told me that I had nothing to fear.
Perhaps he believed it. I found that I didn’t. Neither do I believe it of myself.
In two of his books, Murnane refers to an image from a story I wrote when I was one of his students. It is an image of a woman, who is hungover, vomiting from the side of a small fishing boat, as her boyfriend and another man proudly hold up a flathead they have caught. I should feel pleased or proud—and I do or probably do. Mostly, though, these references to one of my early pieces of fiction make me feel distinctly uncomfortable, vulnerable, exposed.
Apparently, my story itself has also been stored in Murnane’s famous home archives, the idea of which makes me feel—how shall I put it?—prickly. Another writer, having penned a letter to Murnane to thank him for something, confided to me that she is similarly sensitive about having her correspondence added to Murnane’s filing cabinets, which I am now hyperbolically beginning to imagine as akin to the abominable archives of the Stasi.
Having felt all this, then, I should have known better than to do what I did in my own fiction. When I was writing my short-story collection The Double, I found that my friends, ex-boyfriends and family members presented me with compelling—almost unavoidable, it seemed—material for my characters. They were people I knew intimately; people whose weaknesses and flaws I had observed from close quarters; people about whom I had strong but often unsaid thoughts and feelings; people associated with secrets, ripe to be ravaged. I discovered that I had been unconsciously filing all kinds of private information about them. And this is how I generated the emotional intensity—the excitement associated with breaking a taboo—required to write stories that felt, to me, worth telling.
I didn’t provide these people with any warning. There is no way to warn someone about something like that. Perhaps that’s because there can be no chance of being given permission.
• • •
A new friend of mine, an older woman who is also a psychologist, recently told me that her first impression of me was that I was a good girl. Then she read The Double and understood that I was someone else.
At about the same time, a friend in Minnesota told me that his wife—whom I had just met when they visited Australia—had bought a copy of The Double. She couldn’t finish reading it, though, as it made her feel uncomfortable.
Like anyone, I take my comforts where I find them. I remind myself that one of the friends—or ex-friends—I ravaged for a story is a writer herself, who regularly ravages her husband in her own work.
I maintain that I owe my ex-boyfriends and even family members nothing. They were certainly not innocent in their dealings with me. I read Helen Garner, admonishing me for my pathetic concern with being good, rousing my feminist principles, emboldening writers to keep being cruel:
who was ever silly enough to imagine that you could be an artist and a nice person? How can a woman be an artist and nice in the way women are supposed to be? Who can be the oil in the social machine when she’s got the fiercely over-developed observing eye that the artist has to have? The two don’t match. They can’t. The nice thing is not to notice. But artists must notice. They have to stare coolly, and see, and remember, and collect. That’s their job, their task in the universe.
I don’t see how you can be an artist without causing pain. I don’t mean hurting people on purpose, for revenge, or idly, or to settle accounts. But what you see, if you’re really looking, is often what people wish you wouldn’t see.
But what I see, when I really look at myself, is something that I would rather not see.
Maria Takolander is the author of the short-story collection The Double (Text 2013) and three poetry collections, with a fourth, Trigger Warning, forthcoming with UQP.